By Laura Diffenderfer
The story of how ballet superstar Wendy Whelan and choreographer Brian Brooks’ new show Some of a Thousand Words began is the continuation, and in some ways, the culmination, of a moment of kismet several years ago when the two met at the Fire Island Dance Festival, in 2011. Whelan saw Brooks’ work, and was “smitten,” she says. The two connected after the show. “It was a meeting I’ll never forget. Brian was so down to earth and warm. I couldn't fathom that the cool urban intellect of his work came out of such a warm and lovable person,” says Whelan. Then, in 2012, Damian Woetzel, director of the Vail International Dance Festival, asked the two if they would be interested in working together on a solo for Whelan that would be set to live music by Brooklyn Rider, the popular string quartet. When the idea emerged, Whelan remembered her initial meeting with Brooks, and had a thought: What if she and Brooks were to dance together? And, what if this was be the beginning of a larger project? As soon as they got into the studio, they knew something was there, and something larger was to come.
This partnership cracked open a new world for Brooks and Whelan, who each had successful careers in different dance disciplines: Brooks, as a contemporary choreographer who had led his own company for more than a decade and had won numerous awards, and Whelan, then still a principal dancer with New York City Ballet (NYCB), where she had earned her place as one of America’s greatest ballerinas.
Some might consider Brooks and Whelan unlikely partners. Although Whelan had acted as muse for some the best contemporary ballet choreographers working today, Brooks’ own contemporary work came out of the modern dance tradition, which is still surprisingly separate from ballet. He had worked in theater, most notably with Julie Taymor on A M idsummer Night’s Dream for Theater for a New Audience, but the initial collaboration with Whelan was his first with a ballerina.
However improbable the pairing might have seemed at first, their chemistry in the rehearsal room was evident to them both right away. “That first day in the studio, I recall Wendy’s immediate warmth, her ability to create, and her curiosity,” says Brooks. While Brooks was well-respected in contemporary dance, Whelan’s star status in the much more visible world of ballet was undeniable. But, whatever intimidation Brooks might have felt in that first rehearsal was squelched by Whelan’s dedication and professionalism. “She asked my permission to take a water break, at one point,” Brooks laughed. For Whelan, who was at a crossroads as her 30-year career at NYCB was winding down, admittedly not by her own choosing, the opportunity with Brooks felt critical. “Working with Brian was like being in a desert, and being offered water,” she says.
The dance they created, First Fall, revealed both artists in new light. In Brooks, we saw a depth of performance, and a gentle strength from an artist known best for his work’s athleticism, endurance and rigor. In Whelan, we saw her trademark lightness, but also an inexplicable weight that seemed to drive both her and Brooks into the ground. The dance’s most memorable imprint is the image of Whelan falling back onto Brooks, who crouched under her as she is lowered to the ground. That fall repeats again and again, as when the mind turns over an event that cannot be undone.
The collaborative spark of this duet led seamlessly into Whelan’s first full production, Restless Creature, an evening of dance that included First Fall, as well as duets between Whelan and three additional contemporary choreographers: Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, and Alejandro Cerrudo. At the time, the question of what to do following her retirement from New York City Ballet, which would come in 2014, was imminent. In some ways, the production was born out of a basic need to keep going. As Whelan puts it, simply, “I just felt I had more to say.” One gets the sense that Whelan’s drive, which emanates from her very being, comes not from ego, but from a potent need to speak.
However pragmatic, the decision was also bold. Well into her forties, far beyond retirement age for most ballerinas, Whelan made the daring decision to create a new production in which she would select the choreographers and dance in every work. While ballet dancers bring their creativity to every role they perform, they do not often have control over which productions will be created, and in which roles they will be cast. In Whelan’s new world, she would remain a collaborator—a role she seems to thrive in—but she would also assemble the parts. She called the choreographers and invited them into her vision, and she called on friends, donors and institutions, including The Joyce, which acted as fiscal sponsor, to support the project. Restless Creature premiered in 2013 and toured extensively thereafter.
After Restless Creature, Whelan and Brooks wanted to continue their work together, and to delve deeper into the world of First Fall. “We had so many things to say to each other—we had so many dances to make,” says Brooks. Whelan says, “I knew I wanted to work with Brian again, and somehow this started to pick up momentum. We started working on it, and just like with the last project, the new project began to find its way.”
The product of that continued work became Some of a Thousand Words, a full-length production choreographed by Brooks including solos and duets performed by Brooks and Whelan. Fittingly so, the show concludes with First Fall, their initial collaboration, which, at this point, has become a touchstone for the two artists. “We know the dance and each other so well now that we can forget [the steps] and perform as if we’re experiencing it for the first time,” says Brooks.
For the music, they turned again to Brooklyn Rider, with whom they had continued to work since Woetzel’s initial introduction. The quartet plays the work of several contemporary composers, including Philip Glass, Jacob Cooper, and John Luther Adams. Additionally, Colin Jacobsen, who leads Brooklyn Rider, composed a new work for the production, which provided inspiration for Brooks. “The rhythmic structure, the complexity and the tension allowed me to look further and deeper into places than I had been before choreographically,” he says.
The show explores the inner workings of a pair who seem, above all else, quietly bound to one another. Both artists delve into intricate places within themselves, while gently supporting each other. In some ways, it looks like the story of a partnership so effortless and strong, that when they reach the conclusion, which comes in the form of their initial duet from 2012, it feels both fraught and inevitable, like an ending has come unexpectedly soon.
In those final minutes, you assume that Whelan has released her weight onto Brooks a thousand times since First Fall was created. But each time she falls back, it is with such trust and certainty that it feels like her final plunge. When Brooks eases her body to the floor, you mourn for the endings you didn’t see coming. There are no flailing bodies expressing pain or a need for attention. Instead, these
two performers, alive yet anchored, undulate like the sea, until they sink into the night. It’s not loud, but that also seems right. They know that some of the deepest falls are slow; some of the most difficult endings are quiet.